By Neville Ferreira

Having been invited to participate in the 3rd FAI World Aerobatic Yak 52 Championships my wife and I arrived in Moscow and drove to the competition airfield in an Avis rental car. Navigating through Moscow traffic was an eye opener and nightmare and after the first few kilometres I was ready to kiss the first Taxi when I get home. If we think our Taxi drivers are bad, the average Russian driver is far worst.

The Hotel we stayed in was situated on Finam airfield about 110Km's south of Moscow and we arrived there after 9pm tired after the long flight and nightmarish drive. Having booked well in advance we were expecting our room to be ready only to discover that there was no room reserved for us. Fortunately I had the booking confirmation on email but this did not interest the receptionist whose English was almost non-existent. So out came the Ipad and I indicated to the clerk behind the desk by pointing at my photo on the competition website that I was the South African pilot checking in for the competition. Still no joy so I phoned a Russian speaking person back in SA and at last we were able to get the room sorted.

The next surprise was that the Hotel did not have any credit card facilities and we had no Rubels as the documentation given to us indicated all the charges will be in Euros. A second phone call to our Russian friend and we were able to ask for someone at the airfield who were able to exchange Euros for Rubels. It was now almost 10:30pm and we still needed to get something to eat.... The restaurant at the airfield closed at 10:45. No English on the menu and what was left in the pots we did not recognized at all. We pointed at what looked edible and started the culinary Russian experience.

The next morning I was introduced to the Russian Instructor who spoke English and I had to do a test flight with him. This went without a hitch and I had my first taste of how different the Russian approach was to flying compared to the western ways. Whether they fly the top of the line SU31 or the Yak52, they approach the task at hand with equal importance. In South Africa we see the Yak52 as an aerobatic trainer and we will upgrade to a more advanced aircraft as we progress. In Russia the top pilots will keep on flying Yak52's competitively while flying the Extras and the Sukhoi's.

Once I was allocated a Yak52 for the competition flights I had a free 15min flight to get use to the aircraft. I have only had the pleasure once before to fly my Yak at sea level so I was relying on muscle memory not to overstress the 7G limit. In the back cockpit they fitted a Gopro camera recording your stick movements, speed and G limits. Overstress the plane once and you are disqualified.

Registration Day: “We need your original Entry form” not the emailed version. You got to be joking, you emailed me the entry form that required a stamp from the South African Aero Club at Rand and now you want an original piece of paper with their stamp. “A Boer maak 'n plan” and out came a South African coin while I grabbed a permanent marker from their table. With the 50cent coin imprint on the documentation they were happy and so I learned that if a document in Russia does not have a stamp on it, it is not an official document.

Competition Day 1: Known Sequence - Briefing was at 9:30 in RUSSIAN. It should have been in English as that is the official language and was stated on the entry forms. . After the briefing an interpreter came to me and gave me the broken English version. Heck this was going to be a battle. The Russian pilots and staff really go out of their way to gain by whatever means the smallest advantage at every opportunity they get. This was evident from the start as the Yak 52 was filled with 120L of fuel instead of 30-40L for the competition flight. Hoping, I presume that I will overstress the 7G limit they did not know that I am used to fly my Yak 52 with max fuel and was used to the extra weight in the tanks. We were assigned flight numbers and the Judges had no idea who pilot 1-24 was. My coach Valentina Drokina, a Russian instructor who has helped a lot of South African pilots before me, indicated that when I climb for altitude inside the aerobatic box I should make 90deg turns on axis instead of slow turns during the spiral climb. This turned out to be the signal to the Russian judges that it is not a Russian pilot in the plane but a foreigner. The flight went well and after the second competition day I started to pick up on the different flying characteristics between the different countries when it came to climbing for height for the start of your sequence.

It was 12:00am that night and I was back in our room when there was a knock on the door and my Russian coach quite out of breath said, “come, come, come they are waiting for you to suggest your figure for the Unknown competition flights”. Once again they had failed to inform that there was going to be a briefing at 11:45pm the first night. The unknown sequence is made up by individual competitors and so the entire aerobatic flight is not known to the Judges until you divulge it.

Competition Day 2: Free Sequence - When I arrived at the briefing room on time as per the documentation it was already over. The briefing time was changed in Russian the night before. Mind games are what the Russians are great at playing. Today we fly the Free Sequence where you get to fly your own predetermined sequence.

Competition Day 3: Unknown 1 Sequence - The clouds were low and we had a free weather break in our aerobatic sequence. The break allows you to break your sequence into two parts allowing you to climb for height after completion of the first section. One obviously does this on the ground before take-off and I did, having gone through my routine in my mind. As I am about to enter the runway the contest director announced over the radio said that the weather break had been cancelled and mentally I had to adjust to a new set in my planned routine. According to rules I am supposed to take a 30 min break. This was the type of mind games they played. As it was my first international competition and lesson learned I realized the importance of knowing all the rules and regulations before the comp.

Two rest days followed. This was used to explore Moscow and the surrounding areas. Unbelievable experience to stand on the Red square and to see all the building you have only seen in movies.

Competition Day 4: Unknown Sequence 2 - During the briefing they decided to change the flight order or so they translated to me with the broken English. While I am standing in front of the Hotel watching the competition and not expecting to fly until 3-4 hours later the interpreter came running “You have 5 min to get in the air or you are disqualified” Once again the games the Russians played on their home base. I promise to return the favour next year if they come to Mosselbay. We will brief in Zulu and feed them Indian Curry from Durban.

After the competition we had the opportunity to spend a day with the Russian team in their training camp. They live on the airfield with all the previous world champions still instructing and helping the new pilots. So what do you do when you do not fly? I asked the Instructor. “I sleep”. These pilots are paid by the Russian government to fly Displays and Aerobatics seven days a week and to make sure they win at all cost.

The last night I was dragged into a hotel room with all the pilots from the other countries except Russia. Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Bulgaria and the celebrations began. These guys all spoke a similar dialog and here I sat, not understanding a word they said but every now and then a sentence in English was passed to keep me part of the conversation.

Tired of eating the same food every day and not knowing what else to order from the limited menu I Googled the Russian alphabet and to my astonishment I was able to read basic Russian within a few hours.

Checking out of the hotel was another ordeal all together. “I need a receipt”, they just did not understand the request. Once in a restaurant I again asked for a receipt was met with blank stares. The clerk said something in Russian that ended with the word “Kwitansie”. “Yes I need a Kwitansie”. I replied wondering where the heck this Afrikaans word slipped into the Russian vocabulary. Apparently 700 years ago Russia sent tradesmen over to Nederland to learn the ship building trade. Lots of Dutch words made their way back into the Russian spoken language. Bureaucracy is still evident in the modern Russia so much so that we were not allowed to leave the restaurant until the hotel manager had stamped the receipt. One wonders if they will ever change or are they hanging onto something that gave most people stability.

Every convenient store we entered had 50% of the floor space devoted to the almighty liquor god. I have never seen liquor being consumed the way they do. But what will you do if it snows 9 months of the year. During our stay sunset was at 11:00pm and sunrise at 3:30am. Pilots will take off at 11:30pm and go for a flight the same way we go to Harties and back from nearby airfields.

Finam airfield skydiving club manage 596 jumps on the last Saturday we were there using four Let410 operating constantly with the pilots only getting out of the planes to go to the rest room or to get something to eat while the plane is refuelled. Together with skydiving activities normal flights were taking off and planes were landing all at the same time. Finam is of only at two airfields in Russia where this is allowed.

The result of my first international competition was a great personal achievement. I ended up 14th overall out of 23 pilots. The overall winner Mr. Vladimir Kotelnikov celebrated his 32 year competing and flying Yak52's. The memories of Russia will stay with us for ever.....

Aviation Personalities

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